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The Dancing Ground
Dennis Lee Rogers is a Navajo artist and educator who recently completed a visit to northern England. Here, David and Valerie Forster describe a day course in Navajo culture which Dennis conducted at a local adult education college. This is a revised version of an article which was first published in 1999.
In his full regalia, Dennis Lee Rogers makes a very impressive sight, a Navajo warrior in vibrant red and yellow costume replete with eagle feathers, honour staff and horse crop. The costume, however, hides a very gentle, spiritual person, talented as a dancer, artist and craftsman, but at the same time unassuming and modest. We had the privilege to meet him recently when he presented a day course entitled The Dancing Ground on Navajo culture at Burton Manor Adult Education College in Cheshire.
Dennis began the day by displaying some of the magnificent traditional jewellery he had made, including delicate silver ear-rings and colourful beaded belt buckles. He then showed a range of slides and pictures of his home and family. He was born and brought up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, in a homestead without running water or electricity. His Navajo name, which was given to him by his grandmother when he was 5 years old, is Ashki
Like most reservation Navajo, his family earned their living by herding sheep, and he taught himself to swim by swimming in the sheep trough, and became a champion swimmer. He also took up judo, and recently travelled to Japan to receive his black belt.
After a break for coffee, Dennis gave a demonstration of the art of sand painting. Beginning with a mound of fine, white sand, he slowly and carefully levelled and smoothed it out to produce the flat surface on which he would do the painting. The edges of the base were scalloped to represent the rays of the sun. As he worked, he spoke in a calm, relaxing voice, about his life, his art and the traditional culture of his people.
Sand painting is traditionally done by shamans as part of a healing ceremony. The Navajo believe that illness is caused by your body being out of balance with nature. The sick person would go to a healer who would determine the kind of ceremony which was needed to bring him or her back into balance. The ceremony always takes place at night, because then it is so quiet that the holy ones can hear your prayers.
The sandstone is gathered and ground in the evening. During the night up to four artists will work on the painting, carefully sprinkling different colours of sand onto the base to create an image of the yevachai, or guardian spirits of the tribe. Their work is directed by the chanting of the shamans. Before dawn the finished painting is gathered up and the sand scattered and given back to the earth, the whole process symbolising the cycle of life from birth to death.
Dennis was introduced to the art by his father, who gave him a feel for the medium by making him grind the sandstone for him as he painted. Today, Dennis still collects and grinds his own sand for his paintings, and demonstrated by grinding some freshly gathered stone from the banks of the Dee.
While we ate our lunch, Dennis started to put on his dancing regalia. When we re-assembled, he continued the process of transformation from artist to dancer, explaining the significance of the various items. The huge bustle was a magnificent array of feathers from a male golden eagle. He assured us it was from a captive bird which had died a natural death. The feathers are not purchased, but are awarded by the elders of the tribe as a mark of merit. Dennis earned his by risking his own life defending his elder brother, who was being attacked by a youth armed with a knife.
We then went outside to the lawn at the side of the house. The dark skies, which had threatened to put a dampener on the proceedings, miraculously cleared up, and, in the bright afternoon sunshine, he told us that to dance in a circle was a very special thing, and that the place we stood on would always be for us the Dancing Ground. Whenever we returned, we should visit it and say to ourselves, "This is the Dancing Ground."
He then gave a magnificent demonstration of the dances which had earned him honours in dance competitions across America. These included traditional dances, which enact stories from Navajo culture, and a series of very acrobatic dances with a set of multi-coloured hoops. Everyone enjoyed the demonstration immensely, and felt imbued with the spirit of the Dancing Ground. Finally, he invited us to join with him in a circle dance and a serpent dance, so that we could enter into the spirit of the Native American dance.
Dennis is a very humble man, who owns neither a house nor an automobile. He is rich in the things that matter, the traditions and culture of his people, and his greatest pleasure is in sharing them with others throughout the world. It really was a privilege to share them with him on that day, and to understand something of the continuing pride that the Navajo have in their unique life and culture.
You can read more about Dennis Lee Rogers and keep up-to-date with his programme on his MySpace page
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